If you are new to barbecue and smoking, you may be unacquainted with the idea of creating a thin blue smoke.
If your smoker produces this type of clean smoke, then you can expect exceptional results with the meat, fish, or other food you are preparing.
The smoke is an essential part of the flavor and quality of the food you are cooking. Too much smoke or smoke which is too thick and white, grey, or black, can lead to an arid taste of the meat and, even worse, to harmful effects on your health. The fact is that the smoke is like the seasoning when it comes to barbecuing.
Read on to find out the top tips which will help you achieve the perfect thin blue smoke and how to keep it clean throughout the smoking.
Pay attention to fire management
A thin and blue smoke in a smoker is an indicator for a clean and properly burning fire. This should be the type of smoke to aim for when smoking meat or preparing any other smoked food.
If your fire does not burn cleanly, the chances are that there will be carbon-rich, thick, and black residues called creosote produced, which will infuse your food with an overwhelming bitter flavor.
These residues will also create a nasty buildup inside your cooker, and you will need to do much more cleaning after you are done with the smoking.
The smoke production can be controlled by proper fire management and consists of finding the right balance between the airflow in the smoker and the fuel.
The most common problem involving improper fire management is the production of a lot of white smoke, which is something that newbie smokers mistake for the right kind of smoke for cooking.
Some of the typical causes for incomplete combustion include:
- You have added too much fuel
- The coal is not hot enough
- The airflow is not sufficient
- The fire is burning very fast and hot and cannot completely burn the fuel inside the smoker
Here are the best ways to ensure that your smoker is burning cleanly and produces thin blue smoke, which is the type of smoke to aim for when cooking.
You don’t need much smoke
As we mentioned earlier, too much smoke can be overpowering and can affect the taste of your food, adding a bitter aftertaste to it.
In some cases, the type of wood you use can result in the production of strong and overpowering smoke too. Some woods which have this kind of effect are hickory and oak. This is why they are suitable for tougher cuts of meat and are not recommended for delicate meats such as fish or poultry.
When you are setting up your smoke, you should aim for more subtle and less prominent smoke. The thin smoke may not be exactly blue, but it is definitely what you should be striving for.
On the contrary, thick fluffy and white smoke is something you should avoid.
The rule of thumb is that the more you need to look to see the smoke – the better.
The idea is that the smoke adds a smoky flavor but without overpowering its taste.
Build your fire
When using a charcoal smoker, keep in mind that your fuel is charcoal and that the wood is added only for the smoke. So, be careful not to add too many wood chunks, chips, or other wood.
If you have an offset horizontal smoker, then the wood can be used as a bed for the coals. But still, it is the coal that needs to be used for starting the fire.
In order to build your fire properly, you should first get the coals very hot, preferably with the help of a charcoal chimney. The reason is that the coals are the main heat source for cooking.
Only after your main fuel – the coal has become hot enough should you introduce the wood for smoking.
You should start with only two or three wood chunks and monitor the smoke.
If you make the mistake of overdoing it with the wood, which can start smothering the burning coals, then the result will most probably be an overpowering thick white smoke. But some thick white smoke at the beginning is nothing to worry about, as long as the smoke thins soon after.
You should add more wood only after the initial wood chunks have burnt down and have become a part of the charcoal bed.
The type of wood matters
While there are different types of wood for smoking that you can use for the various recipes you can prepare in your smoker, there are some definite no-no’s when it comes to the types of wood for smoking.
Here are some types of wood which you should never use for smoking:
- Particleboard, plywood, or any lumber or wood which has been pre-treated
- Pine, evergreens, cedar, and other wood, which contains a lot of resin
As for the best type of wood for smoking, there are some big differences in the opinions of professional pitmasters. Some believe that the wood or combination of wood is crucial for the flavor of the food, while others are not so certain about the importance of the wood type.
We believe that some pairings of wood and food work particularly well when it comes to smoking.
The stronger and more overpowering flavors are achieved by wood like mesquite, oak, or hickory.
Fruit and nut tree wood, on the other hand, gives the food a subtler, sweeter, and woodier flavor.
For beginners, it is recommended to start with milder and more neutral woods like applewood when learning how to smoke food. As you gain more experience, you can start experimenting with the wood combos and the wood and food combinations in order to find the best ones to suit your preferences.
FAQ: Is soaking wood a good idea?
You may have heard some pitmasters recommending soaking the wood prior to using it for smoking.
They believe that if you soak the wood in water for at least 12 hours prior to putting it in the smoker, the results will be better, and the wood will burn longer.
Our opinion is that soaking the wood is totally unnecessary and can harm the fire and smoke quality. The reason is that when you place wet or damp wood on the burning coals, the temperature will most definitely be affected. And temperature control is key for the best results when barbecuing and smoking.
As for the longer burning of soaked wood, while this may be true, we suggest that you simply add more or bigger wood chunks when needed instead of using wet wood.
The airflow in the smoker is vital for the fire burning process. You will need just the right amount of air and oxygen entering and leaving your smoker to maintain the desired temperature and ensure that your fire is burning as efficiently as possible.
But finding the right balance of the airflow which will keep your fire burning at the desired temperature is something that many newbies find challenging.
If you let too much air in the smoker, this can lead to the faster burning of the fire and even to the production of thick white smoke. Too little airflow will prevent your fire from burning and reaching the temperatures you want.
Our recommendation is to keep the exhaust vent on top of the cooker open and to control the temperature by adjusting the bottom intake vents.
Then you should keep an eye on the color and thickness of the smoke produced and continue adjusting those vents until you achieve the desired results.
Tips according to your type of smoker
While there are many similarities when it comes to different smokers, there are some specific tips that can help you achieve the right type of smoke, depending on the smoker you are using, including:
Weber Smokey Mountain
If you have the popular Weber Smokey Mountain cooker, you can expect that some white smoke will appear at the beginning until the smoker reaches the desired temperature. The white smoke should disappear and be transformed into thin blue smoke in about 30 to 45 minutes after starting the fire and adding the wood.
If you plan to use the WSM for low and slow cooking and are using the Minion method for setting it up, you should add about ½-3/4 of lit coals in a coal chimney in the center of the fire.
Then you should form a ring of unlit ones around the burning coals.
Make sure that you don’t add too much wood, which can smother the burning coals.
After you are done, you should open the top exhaust vent completely and adjust the bottom intake vents to achieve the desired temperature. Our recommendation is to either leave one of the bottom vents half-open or leave all of the bottom vents ¼ open.
Keep an eye on the temperature and the smoke, and make adjustments as needed.
In case you are using an offset smoker, you should burn the wood down and create a coal bed. Only after it is hot should you start adding some fresh wood on top for the smoke.
When using a Kamado cooker for smoking, you should avoid adding any wood until the fire has reached the desired temperature.
The coal should be placed in the bottom of the firebox, then you can add a wood layer and “sandwich” it on top with another coal layer. Then make a small hole in the center of the upper layer where you should light the fire.
This coal and wood setup in a Kamado cooker can help it burn the coals at higher temperatures right away.
Keeping it clean
One tip which many people tend to forget is to keep your smoker clean if you want a clean-burning fire and thin blue smoke.
As we mentioned earlier, the thick white smoke can produce creosote, which will cause the buildup of black and thick residue inside the cooker. There can also be buildups of soot and grease inside the smoker due to the use, which can cause the production of black smoke.
By keeping your smoker clean, you can help ensure that the smoke is clean and that your food will be both tasty and safe to eat. Plus, the better you maintain your smoker, the longer it will serve you.
A word about thick white smoke
As we cautioned you already, the thick white smoke, also known as “dirty smoke,” is the one to avoid when cooking.
All types of smoke are produced by three key elements – fire, heat, and oxygen. To achieve the correct type of smoke, you need to find the proper balance between them.
But the smoky flavor which infuses the food is most largely affected by the gases produced by the fire, according to experts.
The components which make up wood (cellulose, lignin, and hemicellulose) also combine and interact during the burning and affect this process. The way they interact is largely affected by the temperature of the fire, and temperatures that are too low or too high can affect the flavor as well as the safety of the food prepared.
Most types of wood will produce thick white or grey smoke at the beginning of the combustion process, which is normal. The reason is the moisture of the wood, which is released due to the heat.
When setting up your smoker, if after 20 minutes of adding the wood to the hot smoker there is still thick white smoke being emitted, then you should think about making some adjustments to the airflow or to the wood you are using.
The white smoke is frowned upon by pitmasters because it can lead to an acrid taste of the food resulting from the prolonged exposure to creosote and ash, especially during low and slow smoking sessions.
But if you are cooking hot and fast and making burgers, for example, the white smoke may not affect the taste of your food so much.
We hope that we have helped you understand why thin blue smoke is so important for cooking and the best ways to ensure that your smoker is set up properly to produce this type of smoke.
Remember that practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid if you fail to achieve that ideal clean-burning fire when you first start experimenting with your smoker.
Good luck and enjoy your deliciously prepared smoked dishes!